The psychological traits that shape your political beliefs | TED talk

I watched this last evening. My wife watched it this morning. We both agreed that it was preaching to the choir.

I’ve long consumed a great deal of news from as many points on the political spectrum as I can, and – while I have my beliefs and my values – find it invaluable to understand other POV’s.

I wonder whether we can have a discussion about what makes each side tick … without overtly or gratuitously bashing the other side ?

It’s about a nine-minute vid:

I would not necessarily agree with the TED speaker that liberals are any less able, or prone, to perceiving and monitoring for threats than conservatives. Being “threat-oriented” isn’t a conservative trait; it’s a human trait. Everyone does it, full bore; it’s hard-wired as a survival instinct. Liberals are very, very much aware of what are threats and what can take their rights or things away. I mean - countless progressive ads run on the tack of, “______ is going to take our LGBT, reproductive, minority rights away. Trump is a threat to our democracy. Our voting rights are going to be gone. Fascism is coming.”

Very good point.

I wonder if it’s more about the general perception: do you see the world as generally safe, beautiful, and interesting, or do you see threats as omnipresent and tending to drown out almost everything else.

F’rinstance: my thing was always travel, preferably to emerging nations. It’s a pretty narrow demographic that does that gig. IME, when I’ve talked to conservative friends and family about that kind of travel, they always lead with how ‘dangerous’ they perceive it to be.

Fair point. Many liberals are indeed likelier to take a tack of “The world could be great if we did this-and-this-and-that” whereas conservatives may be likelier to believe that many of the world’s flaws are baked in and cannot be changed.

I live in a family where my parents are hardcore conservative and my siblings are diehard liberal and it’s put me in an unusual tug of war. I will say my parents, especially my mother, are somewhat more prone to buying into conspiracy theories that play on fear than my siblings are (who are at least willing to do some measure of fact-checking.)

That immediately made me wonder about the impact of religion on this dynamic.

Isn’t much of Abrahamic religion effectively based on an omnipresent threat ?

Religiosity isn’t the sole purview of conservatives, but …

Could be. Scripture states, for instance, that “the heart is desperately wicked” and original sin and sinful nature are key tenets of Christianity.

Religious conservatives by and large believe that human nature is bad, so you have to create systems that account for this problem, and are designed to accommodate and mitigate this problem, and it will be OK, whereas (some) liberals seem to believe that human nature is fundamentally good, or that human nature can actually itself be changed.

My rule of thumb, pretty well attested to in the psychological literature:

Every individual has a circle of “Us”. Those outside that circle are Them. Your personal circle size is pretty well an inborn trait and is certainly one largely locked in at a fairly young age.

At the one limit are psychopaths where Us = “me and only me”, and at the other limit are the kumbaya folks who try carefully to avoid stepping on ants because ants have a right to live no less than their own. Both those extremes are crazy, but they serve to illustrate the possible spectrum of attitudes.

IMO …

For the typical US conservative, Us = immediate family and neighbors, with a vague outer ring of Americans of similar ethnic, social, & economic condition; Them is everyone else.

For the typical US liberal, Us is almost all Americans and a decent fraction of the rest of humanity. Them is the real outliers and incorrigible hostiles.

That’s a wide gap. Hence all the mutual incomprehension even among the (few nowadays) people trying to understand both sides in good faith.

That’s a really cogent and fascinating point that definitely comports with my personal experiences.

I have a very conservative brother and SIL. They are kind and generous, each being heavily involved in specific charities of their choosing.

And they are good to their families.

But the line that encircles that universe is a wall – the likes of which would make Trump green with envy.

They are basically unconcerned – at even the most human level – with anybody beyond that wall. The drawbridge is up.

I have friends who are IT professionals. We have had long talks about outsourcing, and the economic effects it has as a zero sum game – for the people in Bangalore to get an improved standard of living, there may be a significant hit to a portion of our IT workers.

[Obviously, this dynamic applies to many industries in a fairly recently flattened world]

Which resulted in conversations like you’re describing – about who cares how much about their ‘friends and neighbors,’ and who cares how much about a person half-way across the world in a land I couldn’t find on a map and in a place that I will never visit.

I think this is one of an infinite number of continua that intersect in three dimensions.

Simple vs. complex plays a role here, too: it’s infinitely easier to care not a whit about those outside their circle if/when you believe that their lot in life is solely of their own making.

Also a really great point.

Via Facebook, I recently reconnected with a female friend I hadn’t seen in 30+ years. I knew her to be a really great, kind, and benign lady.

One of the first things I brought up was a story she’d told me so many years ago. She was raised in the Catholic Church. As an adolescent, she went to Church one day and was … asked (told ?) … to give confession.

She sat in the confessional and … drew a blank. She hadn’t committed any sins and had nothing to confess to.

She recounted that she was brow beaten by the Priest who insisted that everybody was a sinner – particularly at her age.

She ran out of the booth and of the Church.

And never went back.

That idea that we’re all “sinners” is pretty powerful. It also introduces the notion that everybody around you is also a sinner.

Where that leads to understanding, tolerance, and compassion … maybe that’s a Good Thing.

But where it leads to fear, cynicism, distrust, and judgment … I would argue … not so good at all.

This is definitely a multi-post, multi-page thread topic, but a few thoughts just off the top of my head.

I agree with the doc that people have different orientations along the 'world that’s open vs closed, orderly v ambiguous, safe v dangerous continua. I compare myself to some of my pro-Trump family members and see this.

But I also see this when I compare my current self to my college-age self, too, which brings up another important point: people are malleable. Life experiences can, and will, change people - for better, and for worse.

When I was younger and had my life experience consisted of living in what we would now call Trump Land, I was more sympathetic to conservative viewpoints. I was honestly more racially biased and insensitive. One difference between me and people in my circle was that I was more open to changing, more willing to be confronted with information that ‘didn’t compute.’ I could process information that challenged my worldviews more easily than others I knew and know now. I could accept that maybe I didn’t know as much as I thought I did and reexamine my worldviews. I grew up in a more tolerant and less religious household, and yet I went through periods in which I adopted viewpoints that were more openly confrontational and aggressively regressive than my parents.

If I could pinpoint one key difference that allowed me to jump the fence from MAGA world to this one, it’s probably because my parents insisted on boundaries when it came to performance and good behavior - golden rule type stuff. But they were careful not to impose virtues beyond those they felt would enable me to get along with others. The rest was up to me, to explore the world for myself, to try out different experiences and encounters with different people. This led to me moving around the country and even living in a foreign country for several years. They fostered curiosity and tried to feed that curiosity when they could.

For most of the MAGA people whom I’ve known since childhood, it’s the complete opposite. They were taught that there’s a right way to live, a right way to believe, not necessarily a right deity, mind you, although that’s the case for many of them (but not all). But when it comes to America, there’s definitely an American culture. There’s a right way to be an American.

Sorry, I know this wasn’t necessarily about Trump and MAGA, but somehow I/we inevitably wind up going there.

This is a very good point, and I agree with your ideas as to where the line is drawn, but it is important to understand why that line is drawn as it is.

A large part of it is the fact that, for most of human history, there really wasn’t enough to go around. Helping out your immediate circle was good, it helped you, and it helped those who were to carry on your legacy. Helping outsiders meant taking from yourself and your legacy, making yourself weaker.

Life was a negative sum game, you only gained at the expense of others, and if others gained, it was at your expense.

We don’t live in that world anymore. We have more than enough to go around to meet everyone’s needs. We live in a positive sum game world, where the more that others have, the more that you have.

I would argue that the big difference between the conservative and the liberal mindset is in recognizing this change.

The problem is, even in a world with plenty, that should work as positive sum, if enough people play it as a negative sum, then it becomes one.

@k9bfriender. This book


is very informative up that alley. Humanity in just the last few hundred years has entered a world for which our inner selves is mostly unprepared.

In primitive tribal village life encountering a stranger alone on the trail was a fight to the death event unless they could establish some line of kinship or friend in common. Conversely, I can’t walk 10 feet through a store without encountering a (pre-COVID) completely benign stranger. That difference upsets the heck out the human lizard brain.

Where we differ as individuals is how thick or not is the insulation between our conscious and semi-conscious attitudes and our lizard brain.


There’s another really good book on point that I read 4-5 years ago that I can’t recall name or author of now. If anyone can recognize this book from the following description please post it.

This author’s idea was to try to understand political leanings and morality through personality. The guy was trained as a priest and had some religious title from a mainstream US religion. I think his last name started with H, something like but not actually “Harriman”; that memory impression is real soft.

In a nutshell, he held that humans have 7 (ish) dimensions of moral sentiment as it relates to the group. Things like fairness, conformance, loyalty, etc. His research result, based on real psychometric research not just hand waving, was that self-professed liberals placed very high value on fairness and rather low values on all of the others. Whereas self-professed conservatives had a more balanced overall mix among the values, but fairness was especially unimportant and conformity was especially important.

I had to agree with his objective results based on his evidence. But when he tried to synthesize an overarching more normative conclusion I found that unsatisfying (unsurprising to anyone here who knows me).

Which conclusion was that the more balanced “conservative” approach was an inherently “better” morality, while the other “liberal” one was lopsided and gave up more than it gained. It certainly comported with so-called Christian morality. Though the guy was at pains to say that his conclusions were not driven by his religion and at least this atheist was persuaded he was being truthful in that.

In my view the more balanced “conservative” approach, like that of Diamond’s pre-history and your apt description as well, are well suited for a much smaller and shittier world that we as a species have been leaving behind for millenia now, are still leaving further behind today and can continue to leave far, far, further behind, if only the people with minds better suited for more primitive surroundings can be persuaded to come along.

If anyone can identify this book I expect the OP would find it thought-provoking whether he agreed with it or not.

My own adaptation based on my personal observations over the years is that conservatives actually value fairness – all humans have a fairness meter that’s hardwired into their DNA, and I would wager that when the living standards of self-described conservatives decline, they view it as unfair and react just as harshly to it as anyone else. In short, they tend to view it as unfair when it is no longer random guy on the street’s problem, but is instead now their problem. By contrast, I think self-described progressives see other people’s problems as their problems even if they are living have a good job and living a comfortable lifestyle.

For conservatives, the most important group is the one that’s right in front of you. The most important group is the one that lives under your own roof, the one that you go to church with, the one where your kids go to school and the parents of those kids, the one that agrees to live by a certain set of standards and rules. And in the U.S., historically, that “us” that has has meant white Christians, and it has been a part of white Christian identity to be in power and to have the power to set the standards and the rules by which everyone else lives.

To them, “fairness” means playing by their rules. And it’s unfair when a white Christian plays by the rules and can’t establish a stable career and goes into debt when some brown-skinned immigrant can come in, work as a software engineer, a doctor, or journeyman and earn as much or more than he does - even worse if that guy gets to break the immigration rules and have a party seemingly go out of their way to make an exception for him.

What I see in the OP is just a reheated version of Jonathan Haidt’s “5 traits” (or maybe up to “6 traits” at some point). Essentially he grabs a handful of generic, sympathetic human traits and uses them to excuse away horrible conservative behavior. It’s a vehicle for making people feel better about being assholes.

i.e. I need to carry a gun to Starbucks, I want to see children punished at the border. This is not because I’m a paranoid asshole, it’s because I’m very sensitive to impure and threatening people. I’m also obsessed with fairness, and it’s unfair for you to question this hardwired neurological behavior in any way.

Well there you go; thanks @HMS_Irruncible. That didn’t take long. This was the book I was describing:


Funny but I had seen refs to that author in several of the articles I had searched up, but had rejected him by name so didn’t follow along to see his bibliography.

It seems the arc of this guy’s development as a public pundit is going down the usual tubes. There’s money to be had pandering to RW fear and he’s since decided to go down that road.

There is another trait I’ve noticed that describes some (not all, not even most, but some) progressives, and that’s a perceived need for “counterbalance.” This seemed to be especially common among young progressives.

For instance, if the conventional orthodoxy is that “America good, Islamic terrorists bad,” some of these progressives would go to great lengths to explain and defend why Islamic terrorists do what they do (“America invaded Iraq, did countless CIA interventions, meddled in their affairs, exploits Middle Eastern oil, comes across as imperialistic, has killed a lot of women and children… One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”) - the reason being that they perceived that there was a lack of understanding among Americans as to why terrorists do what terrorists do, and that it was their job, as progressives, to widen people’s scope of viewpoint.

On numerous issues - be it Russia (at least, pre-2016,) China, Stalin, Castro, North Korea, Iran, or whatnot, you could reliably count on these progressives to fall on the “I’m going to contradict the majority” side. This didn’t apply for all minority causes, of course; I’ve never seen these folks defend Hitler, Nazis, the KKK or David Duke. But by and large, they would support the opposite of what the majority supported, perceiving a need to counterbalance.

This urge isn’t necessarily bad, of course - indeed, it’s often important to play devil’s advocate and challenge people’s baked-in thinking and assumptions. In some ways it’s a healthy and necessary approach to take. But with some of these young progressives, though, they were often just doing it because they liked to play devil’s advocate to spite the majority. They were the kind of people who, if you put them in Yankee Stadium, would immediately cheer for the Red Sox, and, conversely, if you put them in Fenway Park, would immediately root for the Yankees.

Yes, he’s on a one-way ticket to hackville. I actually looked up the 6th “moral foundation” and he added Liberty/Oppression as one of the foundation, as if there’s any person on earth who is in favor of oppression. It has to be in any list of made-up hardwired traits because it’s already a useful workhorse in the conservative lexicon of bullshit abstractions to excuse horrible behavior.

I agree that we should call assholes and asshole behavior what they are, but I do think there’s value in trying to understand what’s behind the thoughts and deeds. I know plenty of people who support Trump, who are bigots, and yet do have redeeming qualities. It’s just hard to reconcile their their shitty attitudes and outlook with these otherwise quality traits they possess.

This guy, however, seems to have the patience and fortitude to do the unthinkable:

I’ve said before that I feel one of the fundamental principles that underlies conservatism is the belief that life is fair. If you believe that life is fair, you believe that if people work hard, they will experience rewards, and if people follow the rules, they will avoid hardships. So when you see people who are poor or oppressed, you believe it is the consequences of their own choices. And you feel that your own success and security are the deserved rewards of your willingness to work for them and follow the rules.

The way that some other Doper (can’t recall who) once phrased it well was: Conservatives generally believe that success and failure is due to internal traits or attitudes within oneself (diligence, intelligence, wisdom, etc), while liberals generally believe that success and failure is due to external factors outside of oneself (i.e., racism, misogyny, discrimination, poverty background, etc.)